EL CAJON, April 27 – The rest of the US economy may be in the grip of a crippling recession but in the booming firearms industry, President Barack Obama is being toasted as unofficial salesman of the year.
Fearful that Obama\’s administration is quietly planning to introduce tough new restrictions on gun ownership and worried that the recession will trigger a crime wave, Americans are scrambling to stock up on guns and ammunition.
Gun shops and shooting ranges across the country have reported a surge in gun sales in the 100 days since Obama\’s election, a bonanza for the industry that has left manufacturers struggling to keep pace with demand.
Dennis Rohman, manager of the Project Y2000 firing range in El Cajon, Southern California, says the upsurge in sales is being fueled over fears of the Obama administration and crime.
"People have a genuine fear that they\’re going to be regulated out of having a firearm," Rohman told AFP, comparing the upsurge in business to the boom that preceded fears over the Y2K bug ahead of the new millennium.
"You have a lot of the Clinton administration in the current administration, and a lot of those people enacted a lot of tough firearms controls. The joke is that President Obama should be given the salesman of the year award."
Rohman said his shop had seen a sharp increase in the numbers of first-time gun owners. "We had a couple in their 70s last weekend who had never owned a firearm before and say they want one now," he said.
"We said \’Why do you want a firearm?\’ And they said \’We\’re worried about what is happening.\’ Generally when this economy goes down, this industry goes up. People are afraid of being victimized."
Rohman said the increase in sales has left suppliers unable to meet demand.
"Before if somebody asked me for a gun that we didn\’t have in stock, I\’d be able to order it from a supplier and have it in two weeks," Rohman said.
"Now the suppliers are saying they don\’t know when they\’ll have a new supply in, they\’re getting so many orders. Right now I have over 400 guns on order."
The industry had also been suffering shortages in common types of handgun ammunition, Rohman said. "I haven\’t had .45 Auto Colt Pistol rounds in six weeks," he told AFP.
Across the United States gun store owners and suppliers are recounting similar stories. Authorities are also reporting soaring increases in the numbers of people applying for gun permits.
According to FBI figures, the number of people undergoing background checks — a requirement for anyone buying a gun from a federally licensed dealer — spiked by 29.2 percent in March compared to a year earlier.
Some individual states have reported huge increases in the numbers of gun permit applications; Georgia saw 121,219 applications in 2008, up 79.2 percent from 67,640 a year earlier.
Experts say that pro-gun lobby groups such as the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) have used "scare tactics" to amplify fears over Obama\’s plans for firearms control.
"Gun rights associations have made it part of their literature and have identified Obama as someone who is determined to take away guns or make it more difficult to obtain guns," said Philip Cook, professor of economics and sociology at Duke University and author of "Gun Violence: The Real Costs."
Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which campaigns for tighter gun laws, said the firearms boom was a by-product of last year\’s presidential election campaign.
"It\’s very clear to me that a lot of this was driven by the NRA campaign last year against Obama," Helmke said.
"All the money they spent on advertizing saying that Obama\’s going to take your guns away, that Obama\’s going to increase tax on ammunition, convinced a lot of people that they needed to run out and buy guns and ammunition."
Ironically, Cook said, Democrats appeared to have put moves towards tighter firearm restrictions on hold.
"The reality is quite different from everything we\’ve heard from the gun rights associations," Cook said. "The Democrats have backed off of gun control as a measure they want to embrace at a federal level."
Cook said there was also little evidence to back up fears that the recession would lead to an uptick in violent crime. "I have studied the issue and found that recessions have no effect at all on the homicide rate in the 20th century," Cook said. "What we\’re seeing now is unique."
Cook said he suspected part of the increase in gun sales could be attributed to the ferocious Mexican drug cartel war raging south of the US border. "To some extent we know that guns being sold by licensed dealers are being smuggled to Mexico. There\’s every reason to think that flow has increased," he said.